The 2020 NFL season hasn't necessarily been kind to the Los Angeles Chargers, who've once again been dealt a barrage of injuries on both sides of the ball. One of the biggest blows happened to come in the backfield, where running back Austin Ekeler made it just four games into his new contract before suffering a serious hamstring injury as well as a hyperextended knee. And while initial reports suggested the "hope" was that Ekeler would return this season, the veteran is more definitive about his future.
"As long as the league is continuing on, I'll definitely be back this year," Ekeler told CBS Sports, before offering a timeline. "Probably in three to four weeks, hopefully. The bye week definitely helped, so I'll miss one less game."
ESPN reported early this month that a second medical opinion dictated Ekeler would likely miss up to six weeks, so a return in three weeks -- when the Chargers host the rival Las Vegas Raiders in Week 9 -- would put him right on, if not ahead of, schedule.
"It seems like he's the real deal, huh?" Ekeler said. "He's been very productive. Making plays with his legs, too."
Still, Ekeler's conscious of a hidden reality inside the Chargers' locker room, specifically at quarterback. A teammate of Taylor for more than a year, he's trying to walk the fine line between embracing the hot new starter and empathizing with the old one, especially considering Taylor was sidelined by way of his own team doctor.
"Whether it's fair or not, with Tyrod, that's just a terrible situation," Ekeler said. "Like, I feel so bad. And when you think about it, the only game we won, he was playing in. So it's a weird conversation. Yeah, Justin's doing well; I just feel like Tyrod didn't get the full chance. But how do you sub somebody when the other guy's playing so well? It's a gray area, and I'm glad I don't have to make the decision."
In the meantime, Ekeler is keeping busy with things other than rehab. He's well aware that plenty of fantasy football owners are waiting on his return, because he's running his own 20-person league. ("Twenty people is hard," he admits with a laugh. "I had to draft 20th overall, so I wasn't able to draft myself.") He's planning a foundation project to fund free and reduced-price lunches for an inner-city Santa Barbara high school. And he's entrenched in the NFL's ongoing dialogue around social justice issues.
The Chargers notably cancelled a summer scrimmage to hold team discussions about the unrest over treatment of the Black community in America. Since then, the team has upped its community involvement, including with local police. Ekeler, however, said it's his own teammates' words that motivate him to this day.
"Some of us have been sheltered from it a little bit because we're athletes in a community that's thriving in this capitalistic world," he said. "But those talks showed us what's actually going on in other communities ... We heard from some of our players that are white, and they said, 'I haven't experienced racism,' and I would say that even I've experienced very limited racism. But in the locker room, when you're around these guys all the time, and someone shares how they have been affected by it, it just hits home.
"It's just so different for certain teammates, because we'll, like, talk about how we feel and it's just -- they can't really relate. They're like, 'I don't know; I'm not racist.' But it's more than just racism. It's systematic issues ... But they were productive talks. I remember Ty Long, our punter, he's white and came out and eventually said, 'I think it's bull---- what's happening in the system, what's going on.' He said, 'It's not white or Black, it's just not right.' And then Justin Jackson, he went into how there's all these systematic issues that keep impoverished areas in poverty. Those conversations stuck with me."
Along with Philadelphia Eagles running back Boston Scott and Baltimore Ravens wide receiver James Proche, Ekeler has been wearing "Black Lives Matter" mouthguards this season, specially designed by Shock Doctor. The simple gesture has had tangible effects -- Shock Doctor is donating 100 percent of proceeds from mouthguard sales to the United Negro College Fund, a scholarship distributor to historically Black schools, and has already raised over $30,000. But it's also the running back's way of carrying those conversations from the Chargers locker room into the rest of the world.
"If people choose to ignore what the movement is, that's their choice, but even then, choosing to ignore it, you still know about it, you still know this is a thing that's going on," he said. "Whether they agree with it or whether they think there's a problem is a different story -- you can think whatever you wanna think. But we're hopefully educating people before they get so stuck in their thinking ... You can't control people's thoughts. However, when something's affecting large groups of people over a long time, something needs to be said."